CalMac have placed a ferry that is 23 years past its normal working life into the 'retirement zone' after a breakdown led to four hour queues on a one of Scotland's busiest lifeline services.

The state-owned ferry operator which is having to reshuffle its fleet after a raft of breakdowns and repairs, placed the 48-year-old elder statesman of the fleet MV Isle Of Cumbrae on one of its busiest routes as a supporting second vessel until another vessel was able to take over.

But the oldest ferry of the fleet has been needing repairs and after users faced four hours of delays at Largs for the busy Isle of Cumbrae service on Wednesday - it was moved to operate on the quieter mainland Tarbert to Portavadie link.

But it was not long before it hit further problems as services were suspended on Thursday  afternoon after a rope was found in the vessel's propeller.  After the issue was resolved Calmac were due to update on when it would return to service that evening.

It needed repairs to engine issues on Friday causing disruption on the busy Isle of Cumbrae service and was sidelined again on Monday for more repairs and users were told that it was hoped that it would be operational on Tuesday morning.

But CalMac subsequently said it would be off service on Wednesday until further notice to allow for further investigations and repairs.

It meant that what is one of the west coast's busiest routes was having to rely on one small ferry, MV Loch Riddon, rather than it and the main vessel MV Loch Shira on the 10-minute crossing from Largs.

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CalMac had been forced to remove MV Loch Shira from one of its busiest routes on April 5 due to it being damaged by heavy vehicles and was expected to be sidelined till mid June at the earliest.

MV Loch Shira can take 36 cars and 250 passengers and MV Loch Riddon can only take 12 cars and 200 passengers.

MV Isle of Cumbrae can take 18 cars - but that is half the number that the normal vessel Loch Shira could accommodate, meaning a drastic cut in capacity even before any breakdowns.

MV Isle of Cumbrae was supposed to have been replaced by MV Loch Bhrusda on April 12, but as issues with broken down ferries and delayed annual maintenance work has taken its toll on the ageing CalMac fleet- it was sent to serve Mull.

The Herald: CalMac ferry

The ferry user group, which has been seeking urgent meetings regarding the state of the service had hoped they had an agreement to provide a bigger vessel at some point to replace one of the two that normally run.

But users have been faced with a far more pressing problem in getting on and off Cumbrae with the the 48-year-old vessel struggling to run, while MV Loch Riddon has also been hit with problems that have kept it out of service in the past few weeks.

It resulted in queues of up to four hours to get a car a ferry to the island from Largs.

CalMac had been encouraging customers, where possible, to travel as foot passengers to and from Cumbrae Slip.

Now it has emerged that MV Isle of Cumbrae, which can carry 142 passengers and 17 cars has been taken off the route to work on the quieter mainland Tarbert to Portavadie link on place of MV Loch Tarbert.

And Loch Tarbert, which is 16 years younger, and can carry 160 passengers and 17 cars has been shifted to operate on the Cumbrae route alongside MV Loch Riddon.

On Thursday, there were still wait times for vehicles at Largs of an hour.

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Angus Campbell, chairman of the Cumbrae Ferry Committee who raised concerns about the number of breakdowns affecting ferries on the service said it was hoped the swap would "provide more reliability" on the vital route.

He said they are continuing to push for a larger vessel.

Another ferry user group official said: "What has happened shows that MV Isle of Cumbrae really should have been put out to pasture long time ago, but because of the lack of investment in island ferries in the past, CalMac have been forced to rely on it. Now it seems that CalMac have seen sense and basically placed it in the retirement zone, on a far less busy route."

The ferry operator told the Cumbrae Ferry Committee earlier this month that specialist parts had been ordered from Poland to replace those which were found to be "beyond repair" on Loch Shira.

The Herald:

The parts require time to manufacture, transport and install - and by the time that's completed, the vessel is likely to have been out of service for more than two months.

MV Isle of Cumbrae is one of eight that have been placed out of action since the weekend, including MV Finlaggan which is undergoing its annual overhaul Twenty-four-year-old MV Lochnevis remains out having joined the ranks of crocked vessels due to a problem with its bow thruster and it is not clear when it is likely to return.

Problems first surfaced on Sunday evening and it has remained off while CalMac scrambled charter vessels to operate a passenger-only service to and from the Small Isles of Mallaig, Eigg, Muck, Rum and Canna.

Thirty-three-year-old MV Loch Buie, the 11-year-old pioneering diesel electric hybrid ferry MV Lochinvar, MV Caledonian Isles, and MV Isle of Lewis have also been on the sidelines at some point since Friday as a new wave of problems hit the state-owned ferry company's fleet.

MV Caledonian Isles, one Scotland's oldest and biggest ferries has been sidelined until at least late August, after CalMac was landed with a £5m repair bill over rust.

The ferry operator had warned in February of disruption across the Clyde and Hebrides network as a result of steelwork issues with the 31-year-old MV Caledonian Isles which serves on the Arran route, one of the busiest on the Scottish coast, and is due to be replaced.

It has been out of action since going for an overhaul at the start of January and it had been hoped in the last up date that it would be back by July to help with the busy summer period.

But user groups who have been pushing for contingency plans have now discovered that the vessel will not return till sometime in late August.

Issues with the ageing fleet have meant that the summer only service from Ardrossan to Campbeltown has been scrapped for a second year.

The Herald: Campbeltown

The summer service never started last year as it became a casualty when the 38-year-old MV Hebridean Isles was out of service.

Some 18 of CalMac's 31 working ferries that were in service in 2021 and deployed across Scotland are now over the working life span of 25 years old.

The 40-year-old Isle of Arran which usually serves as the second Arran ferry in the summer, is second only to Isle of Cumbrae in a list of CalMac's oldest ferries. It has been the regular summer ferry on Argyll and Bute's Tarbert to Portavadie route, when it is not rerouted.

The others that are over 25 years old are Hebridean Isles (39) Loch Linnhe (38), Loch Riddon (38) Loch Striven (33), Loch Ranza (37), Isle of Mull (36), Lord of the Isles (35), Loch Dunvegan (33), Loch Fyne (33) Loch Buie (32), Loch Tarbert (32) Caledonian Isles (31), Isle of Lewis (29) and Loch Bhrusda, which was completed in May, 1996.

After 1973, when the Caledonian Steam Packet Co. acquired most of the ferries and routes and began joint Clyde and West Highland operations under the new name of Caledonian MacBrayne, the official expected life of a ferry had been 20 years.

That is until 2002, three years after the 1999 devolution when the then Scottish Government-owned Caledonian MacBrayne which then controlled the fleet and procured vessels, extended the 'working life' from 20 years to 25 years.

CMAL which took control of the ownership of the ferry network and the purchase of new vessels in 2006, has since moved the 'expected useful life' from up to a maximum of 25 years to 35 years.

Meanwhile CalMac's spend on unplanned maintenance of the ageing ferry fleet has more than trebled in five-and-a-half years.

And new ferries Glen Sannox and sister ship Glen Rosa, which were due online in the first half of 2018, with both now due to serve Arran, are at least six years late, with costs expected to be quadruple the original £97m contract.